Sunday, 11 March 2012

How hard can life as an expat be?

How hard can it be?

Move to the other side of the world. South Africa in our case. Speak the same language and drive on the same side of the road.

The culture is different, you know that, you know that things will be done differently, the currency is different, but you're paid in local currency so no need to keep converting, but you can't help it. How much for a packet of hula hoops? Half that back home, but then have you seen how cheap the wine is?

I spoke and still speak to many people experiencing the expat life, the support, the problems, the issues and the hassles. It's not the same the world over. I can't compare how I fell living here, with someone living in Japan, where they have to overcome a difficult language barrier or Saudi Arabi where women can't drive or go out alone and don't forget about the ban on alcohol. I can only talk about my experiences here, coming from the UK.

But the common theme I'm picking up on is the 'trailing spouse' and I've only spoken to women about this and it's all too common.

As an expat, only another expat can understand what it is like to give up your life in your home country. Whatever your life was, it will never be the same again. Your husband has work, he has support, he has people to talk to, he has people to provide guidance, but he's doing a new job in a new country which is also completly different from anything and everything he's ever known. He can't just carry on doing the same job in the same way and expect people to change their culture, their way of doing things just so his job is made easier. One of the reasons you're now living abroad with your husbands job is that he is flexible, he manages challenges and people effectively and he can problem solve. Why else would his company spend all that money and trust me it costs 10's of thousands of pounds to relocate one man and his family.

But everyone forgets the 'trailing spouse' we are lucky to live in this beautiful country, the heat (in my case) not having to work, a pool in the garden...oh you're all so jealous.

And yes, that sounds great, after all those years of working, juggling Mother hood with a career, never having 5 minutes to yourself, oh the joy to have the time to sit and paint your finger nails and actually have them dry before you have to rummage through a draw for swimming goggles, or go on another school run, or training session.

But in reality it's not a good life, it's lonely and frustrating.
I've no one to share the days with, go for coffee with and how do you be a 'lady who lunches' when you know no one to lunch with? and don't forget you had an income, now where does the money come from for you to stay at home, to shop, to get your nails and hair done on a regular basis? to be that person you thought you would enjoy being for a few years?

I was warned early on that it would be hard, that it could take a year to make friends, it would feel like a breavement, that family and friends wouldn't understand what was going on, they'd just see you as 'lucky' and won't be able to understand why you think you have anything to complain about.

I was also told that once you become an expat, that's what you will be forever, even if you only do it once and for a short time, only other expats understand this.

But despite the support from other expats, I still can't explain what it is like to feel so alone, even with their help. They exist on the interent, they're not here to have a hug with or to go shopping with or to help with one anothers children when you feel ill, low or just feel like jacking it all in, they have their own issues, they are at different stages, they're hardy expats (they do this every few years) but from their tweets and blogs it doesn't get easier, it gets different everytime and the same range of emotions pop up all over again.

So I guess what I'm saying is, when I complain about how hot it is here, don't tell me how lucky I am, it's always hot here, it becomes oppresive when you're stuck in it every day, it makes it harder to actually get out and do things, harder to do the housework and the ironing.
Don't tell me how lucky I am not to work, it wasn't my choice, the country doesn't permit it. And with the loss of work there's no social network, no routine.
Yes I'm fortunate I have kids but they're not really needing me to drop them off and hang around in the school play ground to meet the mums for coffee.
Yes I can do voluntary work and I do. When people bother to get back to me.

I'm not looking for suggestions on what to do or how to do it as I'm trying to adapt to my new enforced life. I've started to make friends, get out more, go more places and meet more people. I have a husband who loves me and understands my frustrations and gives me time, space and hugs. I have two lovely kids who understand Mum is going through some changes, but it doesn't mean she's unhappy, they understand why I feel depressed, they don't like it, but they know it's short term and I'm working my way through it with my families support.

It takes time, I know that, other expats tell me that and continue to tell me that, but they also tell me I'll get there, it will fall into place, usually just as the hubby gets a new posting and the 'trailing spouse' syndrome starts all over again.

34 comments:

  1. Trailing spouse syndrome, I like that. Feel all teary now. Really well written. x

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    1. it doesn't stop the tears, knowing you're not alone, but certainly helps knowing when you're down there are people around who understand you and can make you smile again. Especially when they send emergency emails.

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  2. Oh so true, sadly. I completely empathise.
    Fabulous post, thank you for writing what I feel like!

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    1. I had you in mind with the last paragraph

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  3. well written. am expat in saudi x

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    1. It doesn't get easier does it? just different

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  4. Thank you for posting. It DOES get better. But what helped me through the first year was reading Robin Pascoe's books (A Broad Abroad: The Expat Wives Guide to Living Abroad; a Moveable Marriage; etc.) Really readable, humourous, describes it so perfectly, helped me feel less alone.
    Keep blogging! ThresholdMum (in Kenya)

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    1. Thank you for your suggestion I will locate the book.

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  5. My first year in Ireland was pretty stressful. It's only a short hop from Wales and I didn't expect many differences but boy was I wrong! It took more than a year and the intervention of one very special woman before I made any friends at all. Now 20 years later I still make stupid 'British' mistakes, but I have have lots of friends and now call Dublin home :)

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    1. the biggest mistake i make is to think in English then try applying 40yrs of what i know to here

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  6. Wow - so much of what you have written is stuff I can relate to.

    I know it takes times to adjust - we moved to the US because my husband is an American. He had been living and working in the UK for 15 years, and he wanted to come home. I come from a family that travelled when my sisters and I were young, so I wasn't phased by the move...I hated it when my husband was over here and the boys and I were waiting for our visa to come through and we could join him - and the first weeks were spent in a kind of haze of being reunited and wow this place is beautiful - can this really be LA, kind of thing...Now like you,I am struggling to meet people. I try and do the volunteer thing, when the call backs come, and I know that once my green card comes through (in about 2 months now)I will be able to find a job and meet some folks - it just takes time, and it just is so hard - husband working all day, boys at school and again like you too old to present me with the opportunity to chat to other mum's in the playground...

    I don't miss the UK in itself, but I do miss my family and friends and the whole social aspect - I just have to give it time, and keep talking about how I feel...I think that's the real key - just to keep sounding off at my husband - he does understand, having spent most of is adult life living and working in what to him is a foreign country...I just have to find some patience I guess, and just keep plugging away at it.

    Thank you so much for your support in the last few days in particular...Internet expat friends may not be there to offer a hug and a cuppa, but they are still there and they understand better than anyone how it feels.

    Lou :-)

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    1. I do hope you get work when your green card comes through

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  7. I still feel very much like this 8 years on. I think when you make the decision to start a new life together - where you both find new jobs etc - there is less likelihood of feeling like a trailing spouse. But when you are simply going where your OH is then you will have that tendency to feel a bit of a spare part.

    It's interesting to me that people feel the same even in countries where there is no language barrier, I guess culture plays a huge part in it all.

    Wine and sunshine help a lot, but I would ideally be back in the UK.

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    1. i have family in America where we've spent a lot of time over the years and culture has always been an issue

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  8. Great post and something that I and many other 'trailing' expats feel. I like Lou moved to my husband's home country but I have the language barrier to deal with and it took me a long, lonely time to make friends and even now I dont have that many. I thought it would be easier than it has been, although our work fortunes changed and made our life much harder and much less enjoyable. Is this a temporary move or for the long term for you?

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    1. we're hoping long term, but that depends on visa renewals and me settling down

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  9. Great post, I can empathise with you. I'm not a 'trailing spouse' as we chose to move to a country for no particular reason. We are struggling now my husband is out of work but are now a bit stuck - problem being it was our choice and I feel a bit like we burnt our bridges.

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    1. we've kept our uk house, but it's not home anymore i wont be wanting to go back there

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  10. I am not exactly a "trailing spouse" in that I moved to Canada to be with my now-husband but I am first-time mum, stay-at-home, and everything is so different here. There are many good things about my new home but I miss the old one dearly. Thank you for writing this.

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    1. being a mum for the first time is a big enough change as it is

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  11. I agree with what VBINC said, if you aren't a trailing spouse then it is different. I dont feel lonely as much but sometimes lost. There are so many species of expat women

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    1. lol, I'd never thought of us as different species

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  12. I agree with VBC also. I've lived in four countries (including my home country NZ) and yet when I moved here to the UK I moved for my man, so in effect I became a trailing spouse. It has been enormously difficult and I have been very very close to chucking it all in (marriage included if need be) to just go home. But, I don't. Because - I love my man, and I know that in essence there isn't 'home' to go back to. 'Home' - as in the people I know and love - has moved on since I've been away (four years!). I may return to my home country one of these days but it will be a new life not the old one redux. I do understand your feelings CR but you need to be kind to yourself, it is a learning curve, and it is a death of the past life. As a very real grief you will go through stages, some days feeling better than others, until you reach acceptance and feel able to move on. I've also written on my blog this post which touches on your post here...www.vegemitevix.com/2010/06/trailing-spouses-who-moves/ Big hugs hun and feel free to message me if you need an ear! Vix x

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    1. I too can't return home Ive invested too much in this for it to fail

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  13. I've been in the UK 2 1/2 months now. Today was a day of tears, but they are getting fewer and farther apart. It helps to know that I am not alone. I can't complain to family & friends... they just say they don't feel sorry for me, I'm living a dream. I am so lucky to be where I am, but sometimes it's still hard. Thanks for the post!!

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    1. Selena, what no one can tell you is how hard things are and how hard it is to make friends, it does get better, it changes, I too cant talk to family and friends, but i can offload on my blog and twitter and from doing so ive realised the tears are necessary to help you move it, it's a kind of bereavement and you're better off letting it out rather than keeping it in

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  14. Oh Selena sorry to hear that, some days are just so hard aren't they! One thing that really helped for me was getting onto Twitter and into the blogosphere. I made friends there and even though they were virtual (to begin with) it made a huge difference. Feel free to look me up on Twitter @vegemitevix and I can put you in touch with the expat community on Twitter, especially those who are living in the UK. Cheers Vix x

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    1. Can't agree more, Twitter was my life saver, I 'met' other expats here and blogging about it all has really helped me see how far we have come

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  15. Hang in there! Those times of loneliness and isolation are very tough. In hindsight, though, I'd say they were and are a price worth paying for all that I gained through living cross-culturally. Yes, the cost is real but so are the benefits and I hope you'll soon get to experience that as well! And that you'll have people around you (even if just virtually) who "get it". Makes all the difference!

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    1. am so benefiting from this experience, ive stopped worrying about the lack of work and the effect on my CV, i ge=uess if i can do this then i can just about do anything

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  16. Very well written and observed. How long have you been in SA? I love what you said about "once an expat, forever an expat", it's so true, I just wrote a blog post about that. You can never quite escape that. But it also makes some things easier. You are not so wedded to routine and status quo anymore, and more forgiving of things that don't go the way you expect or prefer. Well, at least that's definitely true for Africa, right? Or you would really be pulling your hair out.

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    1. so sorry only just seen this reply, we've been here since January 2011 no contract, it's an inter company transfer, so as long as we want or until the company move us on again

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  17. Thank you for this!!

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  18. Thank you so much for writing this! I wish I had read it earlier on,during one of my many teary days as I have struggled too for over 2 years, even though I live in the US, where they speak English:) Your experience is so close to my own that I feel I could have almost written it myself, albeit not as lucidlyor well as you (its a great post BTW). The hardest part is making friends for me, as there is definitely a big cultural difference between Australia and US, at least for us.I miss my friends from back home and yes, there is noone here to give you hugs and a shoulder, nor do many understand. Luckily I found another expat friend recently who helps me keep sane TG:) You may not realize it but you help people like myself so much because we can see that we are not alone, nor strange because of the way we feel.. I had expected to work here but haven't found a job and feel like it is unlikely to happen. I hadn't expected this and it has made everything that much harder to manage; financially but also emotionally: my self-esteem is tied strongly with work. I have no words of wisdom but want to acknowledge your honesty, bravery and perseverance in doing what is such a difficult thing.Best wishes to you for the future. I hope we can speak via the Twitterverse soon:)

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